Diego Bunuel, director of original documentaries at Netflix, has spelt out the content he is looking for, emphasising the streaming platform is in the market for feature documentaries and that he wants to commission more non-English language projects from European talent.
Delivering a wide-ranging keynote at a packed session at Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, France, today (June 25), Bunuel set the scene by stressing the global scale of Netflix, which is available in 190 countries, has 155 million subscribers and around 400 million viewers (as each subscription has several linked accounts).
Bunuel said two thirds of these viewers had watched at least one Netflix original documentary. Comparing it to the days when docs would often struggle in the ratings, Bunuel said: “We are talking about millions of people watching docs today.”
However, Bunuel - who joined Netflix from Canal Plus last year and is the grandson of the legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel – pointed out documentary ideas had to be strong to punch through. “There is no doc section on Netflix, there is no film section. It is all rows [on the homepage] – and your story is in the middle of all the other stories.”
The couch test
He cited the ‘couch test’ he employs to see if an idea might stand out. “The couch test is when it is Tuesday night, you’ve put kids to sleep, and you turn on Netflix. Do you want to see this story? On the left is a Marvel or crazy space galactic thing, on the right is a [Alfonso] Cuaron or some other film. Does your story punch through on the grid and make it interesting to people who are watching globally?”
Netflix, he added, is in the market for big, contemporary true stories: “We are going to tell you [the] greatest stories ever told. No one can make up reality – it so weird so strange and insane. That is the type of stories we want to do on Netflix.”
In particular, Netflix wants “big things that people can connect to… We need big things – we are trying to reach a lot of people around the world, and if it is not big enough or not strong enough, we will be eaten up.”
Most of these deal with contemporary issues, he explained: “Lots of people come with histories and historical docs, but we don’t really do those docs as they are so well done by other broadcasters like PBS, ZDF, the BBC and Arte. We buy a lot of history docs because it works very well on our platform, but we don’t commission them so much because we feel we don’t bring anything new. Our goal is not to compete with the broadcasters, but to give something different.”
The way into these stories is often through characters, rather than by presenting a documentary with sweeping themes. “We don’t look for themes, we look for stories…I’d rather have one great character, one great story - a layered, complex, rich, dense story – that will allow us to talk about an issue but drive us into a narrative in a story that people will follow and be fascinated with.”
He cited recently launched doc Killer Ratings, about a Brazilian TV host masterminding violent crimes that he could report on. “It is an insane story. It is a very important aspect if you pitch to us: If the story is A to B, it is not for us. We need A to B to C to D until W, Z and back again.”
”Feature docs are very important”
Bunuel explained the original documentaries team is looking for three kinds of projects: feature documentaries, shorts and limited series.
Citing recent Netflix feature docs such as Knock Down the House, Chasing Coral, Icarus, Fyre, The Legend Of Cocaine Island and Homecoming, Bunuel said: “I have a lot of people coming to me saying you don’t want feature docs, you only want series. But we want everything. Feature docs are very important.”
He said Netflix’s goal with feature docs is often to be seen in festivals. “Features are very important for us, we want them, we want to go to festivals with them. We want our authors, directors and our producers recognised at these events.”
Netflix’s original documentary team also backs several shorts per year, like the short series Explained or short single Period. End of Sentence. “They work very well on the service…it’s a great format and people watch it a lot, on their mobile devices. It’s a great way to go through a daily commute.”
The team is also responsible for limited series, such as Our Planet, Wild Wild Country, Evil Genius, Bundy Tapes, Making A Murderer and Staircase.
Looking to work with European talent
Bunuel went on to explain that he wanted to commission from a broader range of talent across Europe. “We have worked with the best in the industry - but they are mainly British and American directors. My goal is to work with the best in the industry in Europe. Europe is our biggest market today, it is a booming market, it is growing very fast…My goal is to find the great directors, help them to develop their stories and their features and their series… that resonate in Europe but also globally.
“Today Netflix has more subscribers outside the US than in the US, and more non-English speakers watching Netflix than English speakers. We have seen it with scripted shows - there will be more and more documentary productions of non-English language, It is going to give us the opportunity to have new voices and new ways of telling stories that are not the traditional Anglo-Saxon storytelling motifs.
“As we have a higher number of subscribers in every country, we need to start addressing their stories, their narratives, people and societal issues. It is very important to us.”
Initially, he said he expected to commission on average between two and four documentaries from each European country.
He stressed such local documentaries will not only be shown in that country. “Anything that goes on our service is going to be available globally. Local for local means our PR and marketing teams will push that title stronger in that territory.”
“We take all rights”
Bunuel added Netflix is not in the market for co-productions, but prefers to fully commission documentaries so it can hold on to rights in perpetuity. “We don’t do many co-productions or any co-production…we take all rights for all territories for as long as possible. We look for very long rights.”
Similarly, Netflix doesn’t get involved in development. Bunuel said the small original documentaries team – which is just 10-strong – does not have the resource to do so. “You need a production house behind you and a director assigned, and a full pitch deck which is the story, the structure of the narrative, the number of episodes and if it is a feature or series.” As such, Netflix works with established producers rather than newcomers to the industry.
Bunuel also took time to spell out the workings of the documentaries commissioning team at Netflix.
He is part of the original documentaries team, which is distinct from Netflix’s non-fiction series team. “Anything that has a story that ends, we do it. Anything that continues like Formula One: Drive To Survive or Dope, that is a repeating season is unscripted.”
The originals team is led by vice president Lisa Nishimura, who is based in Los Angeles, while Bunuel works out of the recently-opened London office alongside Kate Townsend. “Our goal was to leave LA behind, to be closer to European producers from France, Italy, Germany, to Spain to the UK, Nordics and Benelux – and to try to have more of a relationship.” Los Angeles-based Bernardo Loyola, meanwhile, is in charge of Latin American documentary originals.
Further originals execs highlighted by Bunuel included Sarafina DiFelice, the Los Angeles-based manager in charge of acquisitions, who is responsible for acquiring feature docs at festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride and the Berlinale.
Netflix’s separate EMEA non-fiction series team is led by vice president Brandon Riegg, working with directors Nat Grouille and Sean Hancock and managers Lucy Leveugle and Jennifer Mival.
While spelling out the commissioning team, Bunuel added: “A lot of people say the algorithm chooses what kind of docs you will be doing. That is absolutely not true. The algorithm decides what you will watch, but it doesn’t decide what we commission.”